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Ghostwire: Tokyo - the real life references behind the hit game

Ghostwire: Tokyo's Akito wields mystical abilities in an upside down version of Tokyo

In March 2022, the Japanese game developer Tango Softworks released one of this year’s most exciting virtual experiences, Ghostwire: Tokyo, transporting us all to the atmospheric streets of rain-soaked Tokyo. But all is not quite what it seems, as our unlikely protagonist Akito awakens to find a glistening metropolis emptied of its people and populated by supernatural entities, pulled from Japanese folklore and urban legend alike. But the game is more than just next generation renderings of Tokyo’s iconic skylines - it’s a tour through some specifically (often spooky) parts of real-life Japanese culture, covering everything from yokai demons, vermillion torii gates and age-old forms of esoteric prayer.

Akito stands in front of the billboards of Tokyo in the rain

Yokai spirits

As you explore a new kind of Tokyo with Akito, you’ll pretty soon be faced with a new kind of Tokyoite - the various creatures summoned from beyond the human realm. Appearing in all sorts of different forms, these creatures generally bear a loose resemblance to humans, like the monstrous interpretation of the Japanese teru teru bozu weather charm. The major native religion in Japan, Shintoism, is well-known for being animistic, meaning that it’s based on the belief that gods or spirits exist everywhere in day-to-day life and often inhabit day-to-day objects and landmarks.

A jizo statue protects the spirits of deceased children in Japanese spiritual thinking

This could be anything from a strange looking tree to a well-used kettle, and while Shinto thinking asks that people pay respect to these everyday objects, it has also led to a belief in spiritual creatures called ‘yokai’, which can be good, can be bad, or can simply be minding their own business. Somewhere between fairies, demons, ghosts and monsters, ‘yokai’ are said to walk amongst us in real life, often as companions, but the stories of the nastier ones live on in Akito’s Tokyo as well as in urban legend, just like the vengeful Kuchisake-onna, an otherwise beautiful woman who torments her victims with a huge pair of scissors and a smile that has been cut from ear to ear.

The Kuchisake-onna of urban myth wields her infamous pair of oversized scissors

Play your cards right, though, and you might even be able to befriend a ‘yokai’ - while the river-dwelling Kappa monsters are usually seen as a warning against the dangers of wandering too far into the wilderness, rumour tells that if you manage to trick or befriend one, it will reward you with knowledge and power, an age-old bit of farmer wisdom worth bearing in mind for your travels as Akito through Tokyo.  

Torii gates

Another instantly recognisable Japanese staple are the traditional red ‘torii’ gates, often associated with shrines and temples, that can be found all over Japan, and in Ghostwire Tokyo, too. In the game, the gates play a vital function for Akito, allowing him to see the landscape more clearly, identify spirits and gain new abilities and power-ups once they have been cleansed, and in Shinto belief they carry a similar importance.

The rageful ghost of an overworked salaryman patrols the torii gates

The reason you’ll most often find them next to shrines and temples is because they have long signified a crossing over from the mundane mortal realm into the sacred spiritual realm. Equally, it’s often considered bad luck or offensive to walk along the central part of a path through a torii gate, as this is the path the gods use to pass in and out of the sacred space. Once inside the sacred grounds of a temple or a shrine, visitors are able to make an offering of small change into a ceremonial box, in order to, in turn, receive an o-mikuji fortune strip. These can range from 大吉 ‘daikichi’ or ‘great fortune’ to 凶 ‘kyo’ or ‘misfortune’, so be ready to gamble when you pay for one in Ghostwire: Tokyo - you could win yourself a useful ability boost, or be stung and lose a chunk of health. 

The rows of jumbled torii gates at Yutoku Inari Shrine in Saga

With so much history behind them, ‘torii’ gates in Japan come in all different shapes and sizes, and a true expert will be able to recognise each of the 16 different styles by name. Kyoto’s Fujimi-Inari Taisha, Hiroshima’s Ikutsushima Shrine or Ooarai’s sunset gate are all fantastic examples but keep your eyes peeled in busy Tokyo and you’re sure to find more, just like in the game. 

Kuji-kiri & mystical Japanese magic

Braving the streets of a yokai-infested Tokyo would be almost impossible if it weren’t for the supernatural abilities you are able to wield as Akito. Through a unique system of stringing together hand gestures in first person, Akito is able to access a diverse set of spells and magic, lent to him by his spiritual companion KK. Reminiscent of acclaimed series like Naruto, and ninja folklore of old, this is no ordinary spell casting system and actually has its roots in one of Japan’s most mysterious and unique religious practices - ‘kuji-kiri’ or ‘Nine Cuts’.

Akito casts a fire spell using the kuji-kiri symbol known as 'zai'

There has always been cultural overlap between Shinto and Buddhism throughout Japanese history, but in the remote mountain communities of Yamagata, for example, the Yamabushi mountain monks have been and still do follow Shugendo, a unique blend of Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism and martial arts practices, which gave birth to the ‘kuji-kiri’. Seen as a form of meditation, the idea is that by forming nine specific symbols with their hands, a Yamabushi monk can eliminate evil influences through a preparatory ritual of protection.

A Yamabushi mountain monk prays at one of the Dewa Sanzan's many sacred shrines

The symbols themselves each correspond to a nine syllable mantra thought to come from a Taoist text, which described a secret prayer to the powerful celestial guardians of Chinese mythology. Shugendo is still practiced to this day, and visitors to the Dewa Sanzan are encouraged to stay a while and engage in experiences like 'takigyo' waterfall meditation and the fabled pilgrimage across the mountains of Birth, Death and Rebirth. So while you’re cutting the nine seals with your hands as Akito in Tokyo, make sure you remember the mountain monk religion where it all began!

Akito uses a one-hand version of the kuji-kiri to cast a repelling spell

The world of Ghostwire: Tokyo comes to vivid life on PS5 and PC, and is the perfect virtual escape into Japan and its culture.

For more information and to purchase the game, click here.

Otherwise, you can check out our pop culture guide to Japan here, and an overview of all that Super Nintendo World has to offer here.



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